Coach Charlie Weatherbie and his Navy football team spent several days this week pondering "what could have been" after outplaying heavily favored Notre Dame for more than a half in South Bend on Saturday, only to fumble away their chances in losing, 35-17.
"When we were leading 17-14 at halftime and killing them statistically, I think our kids realized they could compete with anyone in the country," said Weatherbie, whose team plays Delaware (9-0) on Saturday. "We had a legitimate opportunity to beat the eighth-best team, but we beat ourselves.
"I told our kids we'd have a chance to win if we could make Notre Dame punt five times. They punted eight times, but we gave the ball up five times in the second half. A fumbled kick and a pass interception led to a 14-point swing, and we never regained our momentum."
The bottom line was the Midshipmen's fifth loss in eight games, but Weatherbie had to be encouraged by the progress he has witnessed in his first year at Navy.
"We're executing better now in all areas. We're definitely blocking better, both our backs and linemen," he said. "Against Virginia Tech [a 14-0 loss] we couldn't even get a pass off. But we're getting better pass protection now.
In practice this week, Weatherbie stressed the good things the Mids accomplished against the Irish.
"We try to explain to them, looking at the stats, that there are some positive things to build on," he said.
Coming off an emotional high against Notre Dame and preparing for a potent Delaware team will be a formidable challenge for the Mids. The Blue Hens, ranked No. 4 in Division I-AA, have won the past two meetings between the schools, and three of the past four.
"Our kids will have to play their tails off to beat this team," Weatherbie said of the Blue Hens, who boast the longest unbeaten steak (15 games) in I-AA football.
"What impresses me about them is that they're averaging 37 points a game and giving up only 14," he said. "They're ranked No. 1 in offense, and I think their wishbone is as good as Air Force."
Tubby Raymond, one of the most innovative coaches in the game, has a 248-95-3 record in his 30 seasons as Delaware's head coach, after serving a 12-year apprenticeship under Dave Nelson. He boasts a 32-25 record against I-A foes.
Credited with developing the Blue Hens' explosive wing-T offense, Raymond is bidding for his second unbeaten season. In 1972, his Blue Hens went 10-0 and won a second national title.
He considers his current team one of his best in terms of talent.
"We've never had this kind of overall speed before," he said. "Offensively, it gives us the potential for the long ball on every play. And speed is the essence of defense. It gives us the opportunity to stop teams consistently.
"We missed the playoffs last season, and maybe that was a good thing. I think it woke a lot of people up."
The offense is built around the versatility of junior quarterback Leo Hamlett, who has amassed 2,137 yards running and passing and scored 20 touchdowns.